Shu Uemura: Master strokes

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Shu Uemura transformed the world of cosmetics. And his legacy lives on...

High up on the 52nd floor of the Mori Arts Tower, in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, members of the world's press are assembled to view the future of make-up. It is 9pm one late-June evening and up here in the sky it's pitch-black. The cityscape is spread out below us, a carpet of silhouetted skyscrapers and twinkling, electric light. On a stage in front of us, three of Shu Uemura's artistic directors are setting out their visions of how cosmetics will evolve. Yuji Asano, Shu Uemura's Atelier International make-up artist, pats a chartreuse-green hue on to a model's eyes, her face ashimmer with Klimt-esque squares of silver and gold. Gina Brooke, Shu's US artistic director, strokes blusher on to a model who has carmine-red prosthetic petal and feather eyelashes protruding from one asymmetric eye. And Kakuyasu Uchiide, the brand's overall international artistic director, painstakingly brushes charcoal-black glitter powder on to another model's eyelids, blocks of multicoloured eyeshadow splaying out from her eyes like a sunrise.

It is now more than six months since the founder of the eponymous beauty brand died, aged 79. The loss of a founder can be devastating for a beauty or fashion house: both Jo Malone and Aveda have struggled to maintain a credible direction since their respective founders, Malone herself and Horst Rechelbacher, have left. But Shu Uemura is looking stronger than ever. The Mori Arts Centre is playing host to a massive Shu Uemura retrospective and it's probably the first time you'll see eyelash curlers on an art-gallery plinth. The company is celebrating 25 years since the opening of its first boutique in Tokyo's Omotesando district and 40 years since the birth of its Pantone spectrum make-up range. Here is a beauty phenomenon that cannot be stopped.

Shu Uemura is like the Comme des Garçons of beauty brands. Not simply because it is Japanese, but because it has blazed a trail of innovation in make-up and skincare and been, like Rei Kawakubo and Comme, consistently way ahead of its time. The story starts in 1928 when Shu Uemura was born. As a child he dreamt of becoming an actor – but the dream was scotched in his late teens when he was bed-ridden with a serious illness. Instead, intrigued by aesthetics, he decided to become a make-up artist. When he enrolled at the Tokyo Beauty Academy, he was the only man in a class of 130. His big break came in 1955 when a make-up artist from the set of Joe Butterfly, a Hollywood movie being shot in Tokyo, came to the make-up school in search of a male assistant. Uemura worked on the film and ended up relocating to Hollywood. It was then that his career as a film and celebrity make-up artist really took off. Uemura found fame working on the 1962 film My Geisha, where he transformed Shirley MacLaine into a geisha; he became close to the actors Edward G Robinson, Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra in particular – during the shoot of None but the Brave, Sinatra gave him a make-up box for his birthday.

In 1965 he returned to Japan and founded the Shu Uemura Make-up Institute, a Hollywood-style make-up studio and the first of its kind in the country. By 1967 he'd started Japan Make-up Inc, a company importing American beauty products. But it was in 1968 that he finally launched his own Mode make-up, designed to offer a broad range of colour, like an artist's palette, to the public at large. Skincare followed in 1971 and in 1983 he opened his first boutique – one of the first shops in the world to focus just on beauty. Indeed, Japan has a beauty culture that is arguably far more advanced and far different to ours. Japanese women have an average of five products in their skincare ritual – a cleanser, a lotion, an emulsion, an essence and a cream. In some Asian countries women use up to 14 facial unguents. Japanese women generally like products with lighter textures than in the West, and it feels like there are a lot more beauty products on the market there. Shu Uemura has two ranges in Japan, the regular line that's available here and Atelier Made, a skin and make-up brand retailed in hair salons.

By 2000 Shu Uemura, which arrived in the UK in the early Nineties, was one of the biggest, independently owned beauty companies in the world. The rainbow of colour on offer and the futuristic, hi-tech, clear-acrylic packaging was not only beloved of make-up artists, it had paved the way for other cult brands such as MAC, who also sought to offer a very broad spectrum of colour along with modern design. So it was no surprise when L'Oréal formed an alliance with the brand (in 2000) and snapped up a majority stake in the company in 2004. "Shu Uemura was the first make-up brand to do testers of all its products," says the artistic director Kakuyasu Uchiide of its many innovations. "And Shu was the first brand to have so many colours. You become like a painter with many colours in your palette when you use it." Indeed, such is their versatility, Karl Lagerfeld even uses the colours to sketch his fashion drawings.

As the successor to Shu Uemura's throne in designing the twice-yearly mode make-up collections, Uchiide, a handsome, shy man in his early forties is a formidable creative in his own right. He began working for the company 20 years ago and has since honed a conceptual style that fuses art with make-up. Signature looks in his book of work include one with gently diffuse pastel spots of colour around the eye and another with a spectrum of bright technicolour: cerulean blue, mint green, egg yellow and flame orange blended from lash to brow. Not surprisingly, modern art is a great inspiration. And he also likes "sharp and cool" looking women like Charlotte Gainsbourg. "I had such a big shock when Mr Uemura died," he relates of losing his mentor. "He was like a second father to me."

Despite this, the company continues to innovate. They recently launched three limited-edition false eyelashes, quite splendid in their feathery theatricality, designed by Viktor and Rolf. For Christmas 2008, they have a capsule collection designed by the cult Japanese photographer Ninagawa Mika, famous for her use of saturated and heightened colour.

Shu Uemura has retained its links with Hollywood. Gina Brooke, who is also Madonna's make-up artist, joined Shu Uemura in 2005. She'd already collaborated with the company to make customised mink false eyelashes, studded with diamonds, for Madonna in 2004. Not content with having given the pop queen something of a make-under and changing Madonna's make-up look from quite dark, austere and overdone to light, glowing and golden, she now functions as the artistic director of the brand in the States. "I'm inspired by art, colour, food, texture and media," she says. "To find inspiration I go to museums. Abstract Expressionism inspires me and also the work of Monet, Degas and Renoir."

All Shu Uemura's make-up artists follow the mantra of Mr Uemura that "beautiful make-up starts with beautiful skin". He launched his cult cleansing oil back in 1967 and it subsequently became a bestseller in Japan where cleansing with oil, as opposed to the bars, gels and lotions we use in the West, was something of a cultural ritual.

One of his most recent innovations was the use of "Depsea" Water, a mineral-rich liquid sourced from 300m deep in the ocean off the coast of Cape Muroto in southern Japan. And in 2006 the company opened the Utoco spa, near Cape Muroto on the island of Shikoku, to use the Depsea Water in therapeutic treatments.

It is to this Utoco Deep Sea Therapy Centre I find myself heading a number of days after the Mori Arts Centre make-up show. Set on a tranquil stretch of Shikoku's coastline edged with jet black rock, it's a single storey, curvilinear, pristeen-white building with porthole-round windows. Inside, there are 17 clean, white minimal guest rooms – think of a Stanley Kubrick set – and a spa therapy centre arranged around a Depsea Water hydrotherapy pool. The spa treatments are based on thalassotherapy and it's a sparse, no frills sort of establishment – no fluffy towels, plumes of incense smoke or Buddha statues here. Uemura's vision was a holistic one and he viewed skin health as paramount because, of course, as a make-up artist the skin was his canvas. He liked to visit and spend time at this boutique hotel and spa himself. And even in the rainy-season drizzle we encounter, it's a uniquely relaxing and tranquil place.

One comes away from the Utoco spa with a strong sense of the minimalistic aesthetic and futuristic ethos of Shu Uemura. "Mr Uemura taught me that creativity should be based on simplicity," says Uchiide. "He didn't like complicated things." And in this brilliantly avant garde company, it's obvious Uemura's legacy is breathing and living on.

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